Comfort women deal final, but reached 'in wrong way'

Protesters beside a comfort woman statue at a rally near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul yesterday. In his national address, South Korean President Moon Jae In said the 2015 comfort women accord with Japan was undeniable, but the issue can be resolved
Protesters beside a comfort woman statue at a rally near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul yesterday. In his national address, South Korean President Moon Jae In said the 2015 comfort women accord with Japan was undeniable, but the issue can be resolved only if Japan accepts the truth and makes a heartfelt apology.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEOUL • South Korean President Moon Jae In has urged Japan to make a sincere apology over the lingering issue of wartime sex slaves, even as he conceded that a 2015 "final and irreversible" accord to end the dispute was not renegotiable.

At his press conference yesterday, Mr Moon said the agreement was undeniable, but argued it was reached "in the wrong way" by not considering the opinions of surviving victims. There were 47 of them when the deal was reached, but the number has now fallen to 33.

The issue can be resolved only if "Japan accepts the truth, makes a heartfelt apology to the victims, learns the lessons from it and prevents its recurrence", he said.

"Truth and justice are key to resolving the issue, but it is not possible to renegotiate the deal."

Mr Moon's national address came a day after the Foreign Ministry announced the government will not demand a renegotiation of the deal as it was an "undeniable fact" that both governments endorsed it officially.

The agreement was reached in December 2015 between Japan and the administration of impeached former president Park Geun Hye under mounting pressure from the United States, their mutual ally, to improve bilateral ties. South Korea agreed not to raise the issue again, while Japan issued an apology and pledged one billion yen (S$12 million) to set up a fund for the victims.

A large part of the fund has been disbursed, with 36 of the 47 victims who were alive at the time having either received the money or voiced interest in accepting it.

The Foreign Ministry said Seoul will stop using Tokyo's money and use its own funds instead.

Mr Moon's remarks drew an angry response from Japan, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying Japan "can never accept it" if South Korea were to demand more measures on top of the agreement.

Analysts warned that ties between the neighbours could sour, although Mr Moon expressed hopes of "becoming friends" with Japan, and said it was "important to deal with Korea's relationship with Japan carefully".

Dr Park Jee Kwang of the Sejong Institute think-tank said Mr Moon was "trying to find a middle ground to satisfy both Japan and his supporters".

"The Moon Jae In administration understands that international agreements cannot be rewritten without consent from the other country, so even though they are unhappy about the agreement, they cannot renegotiate without Japan," he told The Straits Times.

Chang May Choon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2018, with the headline 'Comfort women deal final, but reached 'in wrong way''. Print Edition | Subscribe